This is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that design is increasingly valued by the business world; the demand for product designers has never been higher. The bad news is that we’re not producing enough designers with the right skills. The consequences could be significant. RitaSue Siegel of RitaSue Siegel Resources says, “There has been an increase in demand for industrial designers, interface, interaction and experience designers… The demand is such that we have to turn down work.”
Business success is increasingly about the quality of experience. As Robyn Waters, trend expert and author says, “It’s more important to figure out what’s important, not just what’s next.” She talks about “trends from the inside out.” Companies have been talking about the “customer experience” for some time now and more recently have been using ethnographic research to better understand their users’ experience. They are also recognizing their need for industrial designers who can translate the opportunities identified through user observation research into successful products or services.
While designers have always approached their work from the user’s perspective, to do this effectively takes communication skills and an ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams. Successful product development is a process that involves not only industrial design, but marketing, engineering, research, manufacturing and, especially now, ethnographic research.
Companies are responding to the design opportunity both by building their own design capabilities and by outsourcing product design. In-house corporate design groups are growing in size, even as they continue to work with outside design consultants. A search for an individual designer often grows into recruiting an entire design team, as much to manage outsourced work as to do design work themselves.
Again this means companies seek more savvy and sophisticated designers. According to Siegel, “Now designers have to be collaborative, persuasive, and strategic. Before these things were nice to have. Now, they’re ‘must haves.'”
Siegel and other recruiters are not the only ones to note the shortage of qualified designers. Bob Schwartz, Associate Director, Global Design at Proctor & Gamble has noted that “Companies like P&G need designers and others who think and act as strategic business partners in the context of their discipline. They need to be able to speak the language of business and must be able to work in highly integrated cross-functional teams. Its tough to find this kind of talent, and the professional community needs to step up with our wallets and our time to influence and assist educators in preparing this kind of practitioner.”
Tom Hirsch, who runs InSearch, the only search firm focused solely on product development, agrees: “With design and designers moving rapidly into the strategic center of a company, a designer’s communications and people skills, presentation skills, navigation skills across the company and the ability to translate design into what’s important to others within a business is crucial to the success of a design process, beyond traditional design skills.” He goes further. “A great designer with poor communication skills won’t get their designs into production, through the system, whereas a good designer with great communication skills will get consistently better design outcomes through a system.”
The problem is compounded by what’s happening in other countries. First, US companies can no longer go overseas to find designers. They’re no longer available, and, interestingly, not all of those surplus designers are working in the field. Take what’s happening in China, for example. In the 1980s, there were fewer than ten industrial design programs in China; today, there are more than 400, the vast majority of which have been established since 1998.
According to Xuan Yu and Liu De, who shared this information at the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) conference in Austin, TX, this September, China graduates 10,000 designers every year, but only one quarter find jobs as industrial designers. The rest are going into other areas of industry. Despite the fact that the tuition for an industrial design program is twice that of an engineering program, and despite the fact that design jobs are limited, students continue to flock to design programs. They say their design training is of value and gives them an advantage in their non-design jobs.
While the number of designers in China is growing, many point out that design education in China is very basic, focused mostly on form and similar to US design programs of the 1950s. The programs will evolve, however. What is important to understand is the huge number of people infiltrating the Chinese business world who understand and appreciate the value of design. They are bringing a new mindset that could have significant impact on Chinese industry in the years ahead.
So, what is being done about developing qualified designers? One solution has been multidisciplinary product development courses that bring students and faculty together from industrial design, business, and mechanical engineering. The longest running of these are courses at Carnegie Mellon and a joint course between MIT and Rhode Island School of Design. Rather than attempt to explain the value of design to business students and business thinking to design students, the students work together for an entire semester jointly developing a business plan and a new product. At the end of the semester they hold a ‘design fair’ where the teams present their finished products to faculty, students, and sometimes representatives from the venture capital world. IBM, Nike and Chrysler funded Corporate Design Foundation programs to help introduce these first courses but many more are needed today.
Two years ago, P&G began sponsoring School Collaboratives Program. Funding was provided to selected colleges and universities to conduct cross-functional projects among students from different disciplines, including design, marketing, engineering, finance, social anthropology and others. They worked on themes such as “Aging Consumers” and “Underserved Markets in the Developing World,” while coaches from P&G helped to guide and critique the work.
If the US is to produce the number of skilled designers it needs, more companies must become more involved in design education. Siegel comments that we need to “Change secondary education to be more project based…make internships mandatory, two- or three-month stints in order to graduate. Start integrating design students into the business world early on. Tear down the barriers.”
Says InSearch’s Hirsch, “It is really a challenge of translating frames of reference between a designer’s understanding of a problem and opportunity and a business person’s understanding of the same problem and opportunity. This challenge must be better understood and taught in design education, beyond traditional design skills. Design education is woefully behind the curve of what it takes to succeed for a designer in current and fast evolving realities.”
Can we develop enough designers with the right skills? I certainly hope that this will become a “good news” story.